Busi­ness or Plea­sure?

We­work and the mixed re­wards of shared of­fjce spa­ces

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Ni­cholas Hune-brown

We­work and the mixed re­wards of shared of­fice spa­ces

One af­ter­noon last May, on the fourth floor of a mas­sive ren­o­va­tion site in down­town Toronto, a lanky twen­tysome­thing in a hard hat asked me to en­vi­sion the fu­ture. Jarred was from We­work, a com­pany that was in the midst of build­ing a six-storey com­mu­nal work­place where self-em­ployed strivers could rent desks, min­gle, and share ideas around craft-beer taps. The space, he as­sured me, was go­ing to be funky. “There’ll be ex­posed brick and sock­ets to give it that mod­ern look,” he said, ges­tur­ing at the dusty ex­panse.

Jarred was try­ing to sell me on more than just aes­thet­ics — he was of­fer­ing a utopian vi­sion of com­mu­nity. My fu­ture co-work­ers, he said, would be fas­ci­nat­ing. They were startup founders and young cre­ative types. A tequila com­pany had rented of­fice space and wanted to host tequila Tues­days. He opened the We­work app on his phone, and I watched as a cas­cade of posts from my soon-to-be col­leagues and col­lab­o­ra­tors flew past. “I’ve heard from peo­ple who have tried other co-working spa­ces and...the other ones aren’t bad,” Jarred said with an ex­ag­ger­ated pause. We­work was just that much bet­ter. “We know your name, we re­mem­ber your birth­day, we re­mem­ber your dog’s birth­day,” he con­tin­ued. I don’t have a dog, but I ap­pre­ci­ated the sen­ti­ment. I signed up on the spot.

We­work was founded by Adam Neu­mann and Miguel Mck­elvey in 2010, and it started with a sin­gle of­fice in New York City. To­day, the com­pany has 274 of­fices in fifty-nine cities, from Bo­gotá to Tel Aviv. It is the fourth-largest startup in Amer­ica, and it is re­port­edly val­ued at more than $20 bil­lion (US), which puts it be­low only Uber, Airbnb, and Spacex. We­work leases build­ings, ren­o­vates them to a mil­len­nial-ap­proved sheen, and then rents them out desk by desk and of­fice by of­fice. There are now five lo­ca­tions in Canada, and at the in­au­gu­ral Toronto of­fice, a “hot desk” — a spot at a com­mu­nal table or couch — starts at $500 per month, a per­ma­nent desk at $700, and a pri­vate of­fice at $1,000. The com­pany is now try­ing to be­come the leader in a crowded mar­ket where dozens of hubs all prom­ise a vari­a­tion on the same thing: an in­spi­ra­tional en­vi­ron­ment among like-minded mem­bers of the cre­ative class, plus cof­fee.

Ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey by Up­work and the Free­lancers Union, more than one-third of work­ers in the United States were free­lancers in 2016 — some 55 mil­lion and count­ing. A study by ac­count­ing-soft­ware provider Quick­books pre­dicts that 45 per­cent of the Cana­dian work­force will be self-em­ployed by 2020. We­work, with its enor­mous pock­et­book and hip­ster-cap­i­tal­ist aes­thetic, is de­ter­mined to be­come the de­fault home for a new gen­er­a­tion of white-col­lar work­ers. It be­lieves that these bud­ding en­trepreneurs have no in­ter­est in the grey cu­bi­cles of the past. They want an of­fice that matches their per­son­al­ity. And ap­par­ently, that means beer on tap and lots of it.

Three months af­ter my tour, my co-work­ers and I be­gan our new life to­gether. The of­fice looked like the lobby of a hip­ster ho­tel. There was a graf­fiti mu­ral in the foyer, and the prayer hands emoji that Drake has tat­tooed on his arm was ren­dered in neon on the sixth floor. Fresh pas­tries were laid out, to go with the bot­tom­less cit­rus- and cu­cum­ber-in­fused wa­ter and mi­cro-roasted cof­fee. Rows of sim­ple wooden ta­bles ran across the com­mon area, and there were booths for pri­vate phone calls, couches for con­ver­sa­tions, and an open kitchen for con­tem­pla­tive snack­ing. On the up­per floors, star­tups and es­tab­lished com­pa­nies oc­cu­pied small of­fices separated by glass walls (RBC, in an attempt to find new in­spi­ra­tion and new cus­tomers, had rented nearly an en­tire floor). The place had a first- day-of-school air, with

free­lancers hold­ing their phones in front of their faces as they en­tered their self­ies into the We­work app — the vir­tual com­mu­nity that would com­ple­ment our phys­i­cal com­mu­nity.

Over the next few weeks, we showed up each day and tapped away on Macbook Airs to the sounds of Por­tuguese house music and old-school hip hop piped in through speak­ers. (“Rap is ur­ban, and so is We­work,” the com­pany ex­plains on­line. “But more pro­foundly, the com­mon themes of rap are in tune with the com­pany’s mis­sion.”) While we cre­ated, clean­ing crews in We­work T-shirts qui­etly re­stocked the cit­rus wa­ter and wiped up our spilled drinks.

Fo­tini Iconomopou­los, a ne­go­ti­a­tion con­sul­tant, perched on one of the many couches. She had spent years working on the road and from cafés be­fore try­ing out a co-working space. “I like the idea of see­ing peo­ple that I can con­nect with on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, see­ing fa­mil­iar faces,” she ex­plained. Dane Jensen, a high-school class­mate of mine who is now the head of a per­for­mance-coach­ing com­pany, sat at a nearby desk. “This place must have more Ap­ple Air­pods per capita than any­where in the world,” he said one af­ter­noon, war­ily look­ing around. Even so, Jensen said, the build­ing’s vibe could feel in­vig­o­rat­ing at times. “If I’ve been working at home for too many days in a row and I’m feel­ing slug­gish, it’s nice to go some­where where there’s a lot of busy peo­ple be­ing pro­duc­tive.”

Still, the fu­ture of work looked very much like, well, work. A hip hop sound­track does not change the te­dium of send­ing emails and up­dat­ing spread­sheets. The most distinc­tive fea­ture of the co-working life — im­ported from our so­cial net­works on Instagram and Face­book — was the per­va­sive sense that ev­ery­one was hus­tling, killing it, and ea­gerly sell­ing them­selves. The build­ing was home to end­less happy hours, med­i­ta­tion groups, and mar­ket­ing sem­i­nars — elab­o­rate PR af­fairs dis­guised as com­mu­nity events. On the We­work app, a whir of re­quests whizzed past each day: a com­pany of­fer­ing “non-tra­di­tional life­style swag” was look­ing to barter its fea­tured deals for busi­ness ex­per­tise; a food-or­der­ing app that of­fers steep dis­counts on old food that’s des­tined for the dump­ster (“think of it as the happy hour for food!”) was ask­ing for beta users. The We­work ex­pe­ri­ence was rec­og­niz­ing that you were, at any given mo­ment, both a prod­uct that needed sell­ing and the tar­get mar­ket for a noisy com­mu­nity of smil­ing, des­per­ate sales­peo­ple.

When the We­work founders talk about their com­pany, they use the grandiose terms typ­i­cal of Sil­i­con Valley. Their stated mis­sion is “to cre­ate a world where peo­ple work to make a life, not just a liv­ing.” A mere of­fice-rental com­pany, af­ter all, could hardly jus­tify a $20bil­lion val­u­a­tion. As the Wall Street Jour­nal noted, the of­fice-leas­ing com­pany IWG man­ages five times the square footage of We­work but has one-eighth the mar­ket val­u­a­tion. We­work has found its in­vestors by in­sist­ing that it is some­thing dif­fer­ent en­tirely —“space as ser­vice,” or a plat­form, or a cul­ture. And it is now bring­ing that cul­ture into dis­parate seg­ments of mod­ern life. We­grow, a pro­posed pri­vate ele­men­tary school in one of We­work’s New York City of­fices, aims to groom the next gen­er­a­tion of en­trepreneurs by teach­ing chil­dren about sup­ply and de­mand. We­live has cre­ated dorm-room-like apart­ment build­ings in New York City and Washington, DC. The com­pany is cur­rently in­volved in build­ing wave pools, open­ing gyms, and buy­ing cod­ing schools, all with the aim of cre­at­ing “a place where we’re re­defin­ing suc­cess mea­sured by per­sonal ful­fill­ment, not just the bot­tom line.”

And here, be­neath the aspi­ra­tional jar­gon, is a nugget of truth: We­work is in the per­sonal-ful­fill­ment busi­ness. Be­cause it’s of­fer­ing a ser­vice that can be pro­vided by any­one who can wran­gle to­gether a few desks and a French press, the prod­uct it’s ac­tu­ally sell­ing is the con­tact high of be­ing part of some­thing that feels revo­lu­tion­ary. We­work is pro­mot­ing a mythol­ogy for those in the brave new gig econ­omy: You, pre­car­i­ous worker who will never have a pen­sion, are not a sim­ple cog in a ma­chine. You are an artist, the CEO of your own com­pany, and the face of a dy­namic per­sonal brand. Your work is not merely labour, for which you de­serve de­cent pay and se­cu­rity, but an ex­ten­sion of your per­son­al­ity. You’re do­ing what you love and pay­ing $500 per month for the desk from which to do it.

The ap­peal of that pitch can wear off quickly. When I spoke to Iconomopou­los in Novem­ber, she told me that af­ter three months at We­work, she’d de­cided to move on. She had been try­ing to net­work — post­ing on the app, in­tro­duc­ing herself in the com­mon area, and even hold­ing an event — but as a thirty-sev­enyear-old sur­rounded by en­thu­si­as­tic peo­ple a decade younger, she felt old and slightly out of place. She looked at other cowork­ing op­tions and toured Workhaus and Verkspace (which takes its in­spi­ra­tion “from the Scan­di­na­vian way of life”). The build­ings, she said, all felt strangely fa­mil­iar: they had the same open kitchens, the same glass di­viders, the same safely “off­beat” art on the walls. Near the end of the month, she opted for a pri­vate of­fice in Spa­ces, which is owned by IWG. The com­pany seemed to be look­ing for a slightly older de­mo­graphic and had be­lat­edly adopted some Sil­i­con Valley raz­zledaz­zle of its own, promis­ing ten­ants en­try into a com­mu­nity of “thinkers, achiev­ers and imag­i­neers.” Per­haps per­sonal ful­fill­ment is a lot to ask of a work­place, but Iconomopou­los was go­ing to give it another try.

Dur­ing my fi­nal week at We­work, the build­ing held a party. All six floors were crowded with ten­ants and guests ea­gerly drink­ing We­work mar­gar­i­tas and awk­wardly sway­ing to Drake. A young, blond exec cut the music for a mo­ment to stand up on a riser and say how much she loved ful­fill­ing the com­pany’s mis­sion. “This is more like a bar or a club than a workspace,” said the lo­cal mem­ber of pro­vin­cial par­lia­ment, tak­ing in the scene. En­tre­pre­neur­ial cater­ers handed out busi­ness cards along with their minia­ture cups of ar­ti­sanal pho. This party was work, of course, just like work was al­ways a party. I ate a plate of duck-ragù pasta served on a pil­low of cau­li­flower foam, drank a craft beer called Food Truck, and felt an in­ex­pli­ca­ble and to­tally dis­pro­por­tion­ate sense of de­spair.

The next morn­ing, my last at We­work, the build­ing felt col­lec­tively hun­gover. I wan­dered in at 10:30 and found the place nearly empty, the desks still pushed to the edges of the of­fice. I drank my cit­rus wa­ter and list­lessly checked my email. A mem­ber of the clean­ing staff — a young Span­ish­s­peak­ing woman with a tight pony­tail — was one of the few peo­ple ac­tu­ally working. She moved qui­etly, pick­ing up the dirty mugs that peo­ple had left ly­ing about and stack­ing them into the dish­washer. Her shirt was em­bla­zoned with the com­pa­nys­lo­gan: Do What You Love.

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